In this third installment of the More Than a Student series (if you missed the first two interviews, catch them here and here), I met with Masha Taguer, a PhD student in Microbiology & Immunology who studies the human microbiome. In her spare time, Masha is a home brewer and fermenter. We chatted about how to make beer, the explosive risks of fermentation, and the merits of vinegar in pickles.
First things first: how did you get started with brewing?
Masha: Growing up, my dad fermented sauerkraut and my parents would sometimes make their own yogurt. I wasn’t too involved with that, but I did grow up knowing it was possible to do this stuff yourself.
I started brewing beer 5 or 6 years ago – in 3rd or 4th year of undergrad, I had a friend who brewed, so I would go and watch him do it, hang out and help stir the pot.
About that: how do you brew beer?
You can buy kits to make it easier: it’s basically a syrup that you add to water, then you add yeast and let it ferment. But if you want the full brewing experience, you start by mashing grain, to break down all their complex carbs into simpler sugars that the yeast can digest. You do that by heating the grain to a specific temperature for about an hour, then you boil the mash, let it cool and add the yeast.
The way I’m saying it now, it doesn’t sound like a lot. But weighing everything out, getting the right proportions of grains, heating the mixture to the right temperature, keeping it at that same temperature, boiling it, sanitizing everything, cooling it… It’s a full-day process, so it’s not something that you’ll usually want to do alone – you invite friends over, you all do a little bit together, and hang out while you wait.
How long does it take to ferment?
It depends on what type of beer you’re doing. An average beer typically takes about 3 weeks. So we end up with this giant jug that we keep in the closet for three weeks and hope it doesn’t explode.
Explode?! Has that ever happened to you??
No, but it happened to my friend! You always have a gas valve at the top of the jug so that the gas the yeast produce can escape, but I think he filled up his jug too much so the valve got clogged, the gas couldn’t escape and it just went… boom. It’s apparently something that happens to every fermenter, but (knock on wood!) it hasn’t happened to me yet!
My dad makes a lot a sauerkraut, and that happened at home before. We had the lid go off the sauerkraut, and our kitchen was just covered. It doesn’t smell great.
Back to the beer: so it takes one day to make the mash, three weeks to ferment the beer in a big jug, and it’s done?
Not quite. During the three weeks’ wait, we clean and keep the bottles of any beers we happen to drink. On the day of, we sanitize them, fill them with beer and add some sugar so that a secondary fermentation can happen in the bottles – it’s what makes the beer bubbly. Big breweries just pump CO2 into it, but we don’t have the machine to do that.
The secondary fermentation takes another week or two, and after that your beer is ready to drink!
What kinds of beers have you made?
We’ve tried all the basic types of beers: we’ve made pale ales; we made a fall amber where we added nutmeg and cinnamon; we made a hibiscus saison, which I was so excited for but it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. We’ve made a stout, which was probably our most successful beer, in that we had this vision for it and it turned out as expected; it had no off flavours, it didn’t turn out too bitter, it didn’t have too high an alcohol content.
It’s always an experiment. I find recipes online, but I always have to tweak it based on what I have in my kitchen. So while I do my best to plan out my recipe, it’s always going to vary a little.
Is too much alcohol a problem you run into often?
Alcohol content is based on how efficient your mash was: the more sugars you liberate, the more alcohol you can produce. So if you’re accidentally too efficient, you can end up with something more alcoholic; or if you’re not that efficient, you can end up with something that’s less alcoholic and more sweet. If you vary off this specific temperature by a whole degree it can actually change things — which is very much like lab work, you definitely want to try to be consistent!
Do you feel that your microbiology training gives you a head start on brewing?
When I was learning all this different stuff about brewing, having the background to understand things like what enzymes are, and that you can have complex sugars being broken down into simple sugars, it made it easier to understand what I was doing with things like making the mash. Being so used to keeping things sterile in the lab, it was all very second nature in the kitchen.
It’s nice to know a lot about a process that you do, and it’s also nice to take the mindset that you have in the lab and bring it home to the kitchen for a short amount of time.
If someone was interested in getting started in home brewing, what would you recommend? Where could I find the stuff I would need?
I first got all my equipment from this website called Ontario Beer Keg. They have starter packs, so basically all you need is a large pot and a bucket with a lid to ferment in.
The all-grain stuff is a bit complicated and requires a bit more commitment, both in terms of time and in terms of what equipment you buy, so starting off with a syrup is definitely an accessible way for people who want to start getting into brewing. You can buy it online from OBK as well.
We get our yeast from a homebrew shop in the Plateau/Mile-End area. They also sell all the types of grains, all the different hops, and basic equipment if you need some to get started.
We also use a food safe chemical to sterilize everything and to prevent contamination. It’s called Star San. You just mix it with water, and spray down any equipment that the beer going to touch. When we’re setting up the secondary fermentation we just pour some Star San into the bottles, swish it around, pour it out, and fill it up with beer.
We’ve talked a lot about brewing and beer, but what else do you ferment?
We have tried fermenting so much stuff. I have stated making pickles at home, just because it’s so easy and real pickles are so much better than the vinegar-y stuff you buy at the grocery store.
But the vinegar is so good!
No! No!!! Homemade pickles are so much better!
I guess you can add whatever you want to them.
Yeah! I have started adding coriander seeds to my pickles, it gives a little bit of cilantro flavouring to your pickles, which I think is super good.
We have also started to ferment this pineapple drink called tepache – you cut up a whole pineapple in chunks with the rind on, then you just fill a jar up with water and add whatever flavourings you want, like ginger, cloves, peppers, coriander seeds – and a little bit of sugar. Pineapple is already sweet, but you always need sugar for fermentation. You just let it sit for two weeks and you end up with this delicious drink. It’s a little fizzy, and a little sour… it’s sweet, but not nearly as sweet as an actual pineapple, because that sugar got converted. I don’t know if it’s alcoholic – it might have a very low alcohol content. A little bit of lactic acid might also be produced, which would cause that sourness.
You can also ferment hot sauce. Just take your peppers, add a little bit of sugar and the flavourings you want, let it sit for a little while, blend it up – and there you have hot sauce.
This other super easy one that’s been sitting on our counter for a while is garlic in honey. I don’t understand how this works, but you just take clove of garlic, put it in honey and let it sit on the counter. After a few months the honey becomes liquid-y, and you end up with this honey that tastes very garlic-y, and the garlic loses a lot of its bite and becomes a much smoother and easier to snack on.
You just need to let bacteria do their thing!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
All pictures were posted with permission from Masha Taguer